Afterlife in Roman paganism (1922) by Franz Cumont - PDF ebook

Afterlife in Roman paganism 

Afterlife in Roman paganism


The idea of death has perhaps never been more present to humanity than during the years through which we have just passed. It has been the daily companion of millions of men engaged in a murderous conflict; it has haunted the even larger number who have trembled for the lives of their nearest and dearest; it is still constantly in the thoughts of the many who nurse regret for those they loved. 

And doubtless, also, the faith or the hope has never more imposed itself, even on the unbelieving, that these countless multitudes, filled with moral force and generous passion, who have entered eternity, have not wholly perished, that the ardour which animated them was not extinguished when their limbs grew cold, that the spirit which impelled them to self-sacrifice was not dissipated with the atoms which formed their bodies. These feelings were known to the ancients also, who gave to this very conviction the form suggested by their religion. Pericles 1 in his funeral eulogy of the warriors who fell at the siege of Samos declared that they who die for their country become like the immortal gods, and that, invisible like them, they still scatter their benefits on us. 

The ideas on immortality held in antiquity are often thus at once far from and near to our own near because they correspond to aspirations which are not antique or modern, but human, far because the Olympians now have fallen into the deep gulf where lie dethroned deities. These ideas become more and more like the conceptions familiar to us as gradually their time grows later, and those generally admitted at the end of paganism are analogous to the doctrines accepted throughout the Middle Ages. I flatter myself, therefore, that when I speak to you of the beliefs in a future life held in Roman times I have chosen a subject which is not very remote from us nor such as has no relation to our present thought or is capable of interesting only the learned. 


We can here trace only the outlines of this vast subject. I am aware that it is always imprudent to hazard moral generalisations: they are always wrong somewhere. Above all, it is perilous to attempt to determine with a few words the infinite variety of individual creeds, for nothing escapes historical observation more easily than the intimate convictions of men, which they often hide even from those near them. In periods of scepticism pious souls cling to old beliefs; the conservative crowd remains faithful to ancestral traditions. 

When religion is resuming its empire, rationalistic minds resist the contagion of faith. It is especially difficult to ascertain up to what point ideas adopted by intellectual circles succeeded in penetrating the deep masses of the people.

 The epitaphs which have been preserved give us too scanty and too sparse evidence in this particular. Besides, in paganism a dogma does not necessarily exclude its opposite dogma: the two sometimes persist side by side in one mind as different possibilities, each of which is authorised by a respectable tradition. You will therefore make the necessary reservations to such of my statements as are too absolute. I shall be able to point out here only the great spiritual currents which successively brought to Rome new ideas as to the Beyond and to sketch the evolution undergone by the doctrines as to the lot and the abode of souls. 

You will not expect me to be precise as to the number of the partisans of each of these doctrines in the various periods. At least we can distinguish the principal phases of the reli gious movement which caused imperial society to pass from incredulity to certain forms of belief in immortality, forms at first somewhat crude but afterwards loftier, and we can see where this movement led. 

-The change was a capital one and transformed for the ancients the whole conception of life. The axis about which morality revolved had to be shifted when ethics no longer sought, as in earlier Greek philosophy, to realise the sovereign good on this earth but looked for it after death. Thenceforth the activity of man aimed less at tangible realities, ensuring well-being to the family or the city or the state, and more at attaining to the fulfilment of ideal hopes in a supernatural world. Our sojourn here below was conceived as a preparation for another existence, as a transitory trial which was to result in infinite felicity or suffering. Thus the table of ethical values was turned upside down.

 book details :
  • Author: Franz Cumont
  • Publication date  1922
  • Company: New Haven Yale University Press

  • Download After life in Roman paganism 15 MB.

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